Chris Gibbs of legendary streetwear shop Union Los Angeles, talks about artist Jayson Musson’s zine Too Black for B.E.T and how it influenced his approach to art and curation.
Sean Williams: First of all, thank you for instilling a little bit of serious heat back into the game. For the last couple of years it’s been stale.
Dan McQuade: Yeah, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the Union Jordan 1 is like one of the two sneakers that has really ignited this current huge boom in Jordan 1 retros, in terms of just being a sneaker that people really love, that was designed really well, is very clever, and has a good story to it. So, it’s very cool to have you on here.
Chris Gibbs: I’m excited. To be honest, it came out of nowhere. But I was ready for it — even though I didn’t anticipate the invitation, I was ready. So when it came, I gave it all I got. And Union as a store — and me as the curator and buyer for that store — in a lot of ways, we’ve been a little bit under the radar. And I think we’ve been doing some good work, I’m proud of what we’ve done for the last ten, fifteen years —but it rarely if ever has gotten commercial and popular success. So it was really exciting to be able to see and live the commercial success that that collaboration got.
Sean Williams: And of course, you’re a curator, you’re a purveyor, you know exactly what it is you’re doing, and it’s shown in your storytelling.
Chris Gibbs: Yeah. I’m a sucker for product, so I really am into the finished product. And then, through the lens of just working at Union since ’96. I really learned how important narrative and storytelling is. And I think we’re getting — I don’t know if this is the correct mathematical term — an asymptote. But these two lines of art and product are getting eerily close together to the degree where, when you look at a collection, a designer, a product that they make, it’s really important now, more important than the finished product, to understand and know the narrative and the provenance behind the product and the designer and the story.
And I’ve had a front-row seat, being a curator of the store, to know and see how important that is. So it’s always something that’s top of mind for me. Sometimes to the detriment of some of the design, where I’m like too stuck in the narrative to see that just the product itself is already done and I can step off. Sometimes I get stuck in the story a little bit, but for these projects, I think it’s worked.
Sean Williams: Yeah. And we’re here to get into that one particular thing that you’re into that inspires you. You have a collection of art that you are really into; you want to share a little bit of that?
Chris Gibbs: So in the early 2000s. James Bond, who was one of the owners of Undefeated, went to what I think was the first Beautiful Losers show that was in Cincinnati, and then also went to this offsite Rebel art show that was happening, which was a bunch of artists that were sticking their noses up at the Beautiful Losers established thing that was going on. And, he discovered this artist, Jayson Musson, who was giving out this zine that he made called Too Black for B.E.T.
So James brought the zine home, and the main reason he did was that one of the posters was this poster of Allen Iverson and then, in bold text, it said, “If Allen Iverson cut his foot off, then niggas would cut they foot off too.” Kind of this play on how people are just ride or die for Allen Iverson. And then, in smaller texts it would have been, “And people would be like, ‘this one foot, this shit ain’t right, y’all.’” Something like that.
And I was like, “This is the dopest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” And then the rest of the book, as I read through it, it’s these posters of just seemingly random thoughts coming out of Jayson’s mind, that are just really weird, really dry humor. An intersection of dry humor and Black culture that you rarely see even today. I don’t think we’ve been allowed to have a dry humor —obviously, we all as individuals have that, but in media, it’s not something that’s shared or you see often. So I was just blown away by it and I loved it.
And that zine became like my manifesto for a year or two, and I was trying to put everybody on the zine and a couple of people got it. But it wasn’t hitting like I wanted it to hit. So I called up Jayson and I like, “Hey man, this isn’t really hitting. And I think what we need to do is blow up four of your posters and hang them at the store. Because that’ll get people’s attention.” So I chose four of the posters and was like, “Hey, can you blow these up and send me the artworks?” Because by then I had seen that’s what his art show is. It’s a blown up version, is like six-foot-tall versions of posters of these kinds of excerpts.
And you know, we started flying through those zines. I think we were the only store you could get the zines and I think he ended up selling like a thousand zines through us. We just kept on reordering it. And it was this thing. And it did really well. One of the unanticipated side things that happened was — and it was funny because he uses the N word a lot. He’s definitely antagonizing to what I would say is traditional Black pop culture. You know what I mean?
Sean Williams: Mm-hmm.
Chris Gibbs: So young people that came in the store that were not Black and brown, they would look at it and they would laugh and everything was funny. Young Black and brown people that came into the store would typically get it. But every once in a while we’d have like a mother or father come into the store with their child who’s shopping and they would be immediately offended and walk out and be like, “Who the hell is this, and what are you guys talking about?”
It got uncomfortable every once in a while. But I loved his art. We started selling the zine. From there, I researched Jayson more — I saved up some money and I asked him if he had some art that he was willing to sell. And I had seen that he had done some paintings that I really liked. And I saved up some money and eventually bought some of his paintings.
For me, I’m not a big art collector, I’m a big fan of art. But usually the art that I like is the shit I can’t afford. And I’m not really into it for buying it for its value and trading it. I was like, yo, if I woke up every day and saw that, I wake up with a smile. And at least start the day right. Who knows how the day will end.
Sean Williams: Is that the kind of thing that keeps you as a creative sharp? The way that Jayson has been able to use these themes and use different mediums to make his point.
Chris Gibbs: He’s got his own particular take on what he’s doing. The part of it that is inspiring and what I gravitated towards is, it’s completely out of the box. So where I’d draw a line between us, is that I like to try and do things that are out of the box. That’s what this store has largely been curated through, that lens. And then, admittedly I’ve only really put a design hat on in the last couple years. Before that, it wasn’t something that I was doing. But ideally through my own language, I would love for people to see my designs as equally witty. That’s what I’m inspired by, is wit in design.
Again, he’s got his particular language that he does, which is juxtaposing dry humor with hip-hop culture. That’s not mine per se. Mine, from a design perspective, I like to try and think outside the box and do something. I like taking classic pieces and giving them a witty twist, is what I would say. That’s what I’m aiming for when I’m designing. That’s what I’m aiming for when I’m curating.
Dan McQuade: Now, obviously, this is a very different situation, but you recently released a Jordan 4 sneaker and it had the flip-up tongue. And when people first saw it, they took it the wrong way. People saw one leaked photo of it and it got, not a bad rap, I would say. But I would say some people were upset about it. Upset in quotes, but…
Sean Williams: Upset in hypebeast terminology.
Dan McQuade: Yeah.
Chris Gibbs: I guess, again, for me, I think I’ve said something to this effect before. Especially when you’re fucking with the original top 10 Jordan shoes, you can’t really make them better. That’s the whole reason why we’re even having that conversation and doing these collabs. And I know that the fans of those shoes are pretty steadfast in, those are the holy grails. Don’t touch them, don’t mess with them. They want a new color, they may be open to a new fabric, but don’t fuck with it too much. So I was cognizant of that and aware of that and hyper-appreciative of not trying to do that. At the same time, well, if all I’m doing is taking that 4 and giving it new colors, it seems to me to be like a waste of time and energy.
And one of the things that I would hope I was brought into the Jordan thing to do is to give them a different take on things. So I tried to walk that thin line between doing something new and different, but while still paying homage to the classic original piece. I felt like I did a pretty good job. The tongue became this thing that not everybody would agree with. But, again, the original leaked photos didn’t show that you can choose, you can choose to fold it up or down. And once that came out, everybody calmed down.
Sean Williams: Somewhat. Somewhat.
Dan McQuade: As much as sneaker people on the internet can calm down.
Sean Williams: There are similarities between Jayson’s work and yours in that same way you mentioned the reactions from people walking into Union. It’s similar to that poster, where it’s going to garner a bunch of different reactions.
Chris Gibbs: I had never thought of it, but that’s true. And one of the parallels is that, most of the people when they’ve had that initial shock from seeing his work, the shock is coming from a word. A word that obviously is charged. But also our generation has re-appropriated. And we could have a two-hour long podcast on the ins and outs of that, but maybe we’ll save that for another time. But I think once people were inspired to actually read the whole poster or read the whole comment, most people saw the context. And once the context was revealed, they calmed down, much like with the tongue. So I never thought of it, but, there is a similar parallel there.
Sean Williams: It’s what I’m here for, Chris.
Chris Gibbs: Thank you. Somebody has got to be on top of this.